Tag Archive: Mental Health


There can’t be many instances where your loved ones raise a glass to toast your  mental torment but then again. there probably aren’t that many cases where eating a beef sandwich is an achievement worthy of celebration.

Perhaps those in the loop will actually understand the bizarre situation I’m writing about, but if you’re a ‘normal’ person, you might struggle.

Wait..! Did I just use the term ‘normal’?

I can hear some of the cries of protest. “…But there’s NO SUCH THING AS NORMAL…” Protestations jet from all corners of the philosophical, semantic and *wince* pedantic realm. No such thing. Everyone’s weird. Everyone’s normal. There IS no normal.

But there IS. There IS in the tangled, screwed up world of we Eating Disorder folk. If you disagree, you might want to read on because I’m going to tell you about what normal is, often by arguing the case for what it’s not.  (If that goes over your head, don’t waste mental energy on it. Reading on will give you a clearer idea.)

“Normal” is our friends who happily pick a sandwich in a deli without an onslaught of mathematical conundrums running riot in their brain. “Normal” can actually have ANY kind of drink they like without even a whisper of a ‘value for calories’ haunting their thoughts.

Normal can choose food to satisfy their taste buds and not to keep them as light as possible. Normal doesn’t even think twice about adding one extra raspberry to their (carefully weighed) bowl of lowest calorie cereal.

Normal doesn’t consider black coffee a ‘snack’ or stir-fry an indulgent meal. It wouldn’t cast a suspicious eye over the size of a tangerine, or swear that an apple has the potential to be fattening. Nor would it question the amount of calories / fat / carbohydrate in a carrot. It wouldn’t distrust the carefully stated amounts of these ‘anorexic-life-threatening’ printed on each product, or regard cauliflower as an enemy to be avoided at all costs.

You see..?

Normal doesn’t experience eating as a trigger for a sort of inexplicably acute mental pain. It doesn’t really begin to understand that ‘food’ is merely an assortment of numbers. (Despite our health conscious Food Standards people’s best efforts!) It doesn’t ‘get’ that a carrot is 35, a berry, 2 and if you throw in a spoonful of yoghurt you’ve exceeded the limit. (Scrape half away, then share some with the sink…)

Normal might be conscious of the numbers, but it’s not ruled by them. It doesn’t carefully bite each Malteser in half to ensure it has exactly half the stated amount. It doesn’t have to ignore the body’s cries for rest in order to complete the requisite amount of high intensive ‘burn off’ exercises before or after a calculated amount of food.

Normal doesn’t FEEL fat growing ON them if they eat something frightening. It doesn’t feel the rush of shame and disgust if they slip up and allow too much food to enter the forbidding mouth. It won’t suffer an onslaught of blind fear, the compulsion to induce vomiting or crapping or even the wild urge to cut fat OFF any given part of themselves.

I realise there are degrees of ‘normal’; a continuum even. This illness, any Eating Disorder, defies all concept of normality and in doing so, isolates sufferers in a sadistic and divisive way.

As someone who, for almost thirty years, was pretty ‘normal’ about food, I feel somewhat justified, perhaps even qualified, to attempt to explain that there really IS such a thing as ‘normal’ in the world I, and so many others, inhabit.

The next nine years of my life have literally been stolen from me.

I find it incomprehensible that for almost three decades, I could actually EAT a meal without attaching any feelings or significance to the food at all. Nor can I recall how I might have RELISHED the chance to actually SIT DOWN and watch a whole film without the raging impulse to burn off calories, the torture of that insane edict.

It’s too hard to properly explain how Anorexia has unpicked and rewoven my ‘normality’, but I hope, in some small way, I’ve conveyed the havoc it wrecks upon its victims, some too young to ever have experienced the luxury and freedom of normality

I hope these descriptions may bring some small solace to those who don’t feel understood and information for those who want to understand.

There’s no such thing as normal, but there is ‘abnormal’, and this illness is one example of that.

Someday, I hope to eat again, with the freedom of that first part of my life.

wp-1485627045415.jpg

Doesn’t do a lot for my point, but I do love a bit of Edward Monkton…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Redefining ‘Normal’

world-mental-health-dayOctober 10th 2016: a day designated by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as one of those awareness type days where everyone is meant to have their mind jogged about the existence of mental health and the kind of struggles people can have.

I had no intention of writing, but the surge of mental health promotion that hit me when I turned on my laptop was so ‘full frontal’ that I almost feel I have a sort of obligation to this little gathering of mental moaning and metaphor that is my blog.

The public frequently hear the term ‘mental health’ and, despite the best efforts of organisations like WHO and MIND, there are still a variety of stigmas (what’s the plural of stigma? – Clumsy phraseology, I apologise) attached and often, that stigma either shrinks from it, or tuts at it dismissively, cos who hasn’t had a mental health problem nowadays? Who hasn’t seen someone exonerated on the grounds of ‘ mental health’.

Where am I going with this you ask? (I’m not entirely sure myself)

Thing is folks, we all ‘HAVE’ mental health. It’s true!  The term is used imprecisely (a fine one to talk!) because we often use it to refer to a person’s POOR mental health, their mental ILL health, I suppose.

Many people I know think ‘mental health’ is something they don’t have, because it’s Anorexia or Schizophrenia or any of those crazy things.. Actually though, I’d argue that there isn’t this clear line dividing mental health and mental illness.

Mental health is a continuum. It’s a gauge which can be set higher or lower in particular individuals; higher or lower at certain times in each and ever one of us.

I think what I’m saying, in the most convoluted way possible, is that I sometimes sigh and roll my eyes at all these awareness days… I sometimes tire of hearing ardent advocates shouting and waving banners about one thing and another… (I am hanging my head, a contrite cynic – if you’ve ever heard of such a thing!) BUT, this mental health awareness stuff IS something worth stopping and thinking about. It’s worth it because it is something which affects us all, no matter the extent. Mental HEALTH is something we all possess and something we need to nurture in ourselves and in those around us.

Looking after a person’s mental health isn’t something that comes naturally to all of us. Days like today give us the opportunity to have a quick look at ways we can make it possible to reduce the rising percentage of people struggling with mental illness.

https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/campaigns/world-mental-health-day

wmhd15-poster

It would be so easy for my little blogpost boat to sink in the murky waters of semantics, and without getting too punctured by the range of philosophical angles that one could discuss, i really just want to vent my (ever present) irritation at the language used by the advertising industry; in this case ‘The Weetabix Company’.

In my usual post dinner position at the end of the sofa, I was half watching an action thriller (questionable use of the word ‘thriller’), crocheting a monkey’s arm and sipping a small decaf coffee. The ads came on and I half listened to the voiceover on an advert for Weetabix. Not just ANY old Weetabix though… a NEW and exciting product marketed as ‘Breakfast On The Go’.

Okay so they’ve cashed in on the whole blended drinks craze that seems to have swept over the ever increasing ‘clean – eating- Ella- loving – nutri – bullet – blending’ demographic in our nation. Not a problem. People are busy, time is unfair in the mornings and breakfast on the go is, at least, still breaking a fast.

My problem began when the advert reached its finale and the slightly Cockney, ‘bit of a lad that everyone loves’ male voice declared, “New Weetabix High Protein On the Go…”

and…. wait for it…

“A PROPER BREAKFAST…

BOTTLED”

I know it sounds like I’m splitting sematic hairs here, but honestly, SERIOUSLY, it’s a kind of oxymoronic advertising disaster…

I don’t really want to get into a long debate around the definition of ‘a proper breakfast’ but surely, SURELY if it IS a proper breakfast, it wouldn’t be on a BOTTLE! Not unless it’s for a baby…

An audience of non-eating-disordered folk will probably just shrug at this notion and possibly view it as a somewhat petty quibble, but for someone whose world has been hijacked by a vicious food related illness this kind of bizarre advertising can be a powerful (and potentially dangerous) way of reshaping and redefining what is ‘proper’ and ‘normal’. Although I’m not confident in defining ‘a proper breakfast’, I sure as hell know what is NOT. And a bottle of Weetabix doesn’t cut it.

Rant over.

Apologies to all who remain unconvinced and to The Weetabix Company who, no doubt, worked very hard at perfecting their script. Next time though, try marketing it as baby food.

I’ve been in an Eating Disorders unit for the past month or so… part of the reason for my silence here.

I got out a week ago and so I’m dipping my toe back into the Blogsphere….

Watch this space!

spaghettiJust eat! It’s really that simple”

The well meaning eyes of family and friends cast along the frame of an ED sufferer; pupils travelling the ridges of the clavicle, the skeletal hands and down the birdlike legs.

Just say, I CAN do this

Just make up your mind that you’re GOING TO do it and then DO IT

Lots of ‘justs’. Lots of good suggestions. Lots of spilled frustrations.

So why isn’t it ‘that simple’?

Surely it’s not rocket science…

Well…. in actual fact, although it’s NOT about rockets, there is quite a lot of science involved; physiology to be precise.

When someone is well below a healthy weight, the list of psychological blocks to recovery may be a mile long. However, unbeknown to many, there are also many physiological reasons. Chemical and hormonal shifts in the brain that induce behaviours which can make it incredibly difficult to behave in a ‘normal’ way around food. Experts in the ED field will tell you that a full recovery isn’t possible until weight has been restored to the point where a patient’s BMI is between 20 and 25. In fact, many argue that it is ONLY when a patient reaches a safe, healthy weight (and so, BMI) that recovery can begin.

I agree.

One of the strongest pieces of supporting evidence we have for this idea comes from a ground breaking, wartime,  experiment into the effects of starvation, performed by Dr Ancel Keys.

In 1944, as war raged throughout the world, Keys recruited 36 young men (mostly conscientious objectors) all deemed to be at a peak of physical fitness and mentally / psychologically healthy.  Over a period of a year, he studied the behaviours and mind set of the men as he systematically cut their calorie intake and increased their levels of exercise . By the end of the ‘starvation phase’, the men had lost around a quarter of their body weight and their physical appearance was skeletal.

Photographs of the subjects reveal bodies not dissimilar to those who had suffered in concentration camps. Certainly, the men appeared to have been subject to a lifestyle which denied them of their most primal need; much like the self inflicted discipline exercised by those with Bulimia or Anorexia Nervosa.

For someone attempting to recover from an eating disorder, the most pertinent revelations of ‘The Minnesota Experiment’ lie in the fascinating changes in behaviour displayed by Keys’ subjects. Behaviours and attitudes practised in secret, cloaked in a horrible sense of shame, perhaps feared by the sufferer to be so ‘odd’, so far from ‘normal’ that nobody should ever find out… Behaviour that actually, The Minnesota Experiment, proved to be a direct result of the human body being starved and therefore, some way beyond the sufferer’s control.

Keys documents that the more the men starved, the more overwhelming was their obsession with food. Food became an absolute priority while the rest of the world, family, politics, opinions, religion etc, all faded into obscurity.  The men were restless, their minds unconsciously forcing their bodies to forage for food, allowing little sleep as the need for nutrition overrode all other basic needs.

Interestingly, all the men developed ‘abnormal’ eating patterns, becoming ritualistic, taking up to two hours to eat a meal, cutting food into tiny pieces,  mixing food with liquid to make more of it and hoarding food so they could take it back to their bunks and graze on it. Moreover, the thinner the men became, the less able they were to judge their size as being thin or underweight. A few of them even went so far as to express thoughts that others were too fat. Spot the quandary of an Anorexic.

There were many, many physical effects, most of which an Anorexic will experience as par for the course, but in order to explain why it’s so damn hard to ‘just eat’, I wanted to draw from the physiological findings of Keys’ experiment. The state of semi starvation, of extreme self denial, is in itself, a trap. Being below a healthy BMI produces its own set of barriers to eating, making the initial ‘pre recovery / weight restoration’ phase about as difficult as it could be.

It’s really not as simple as it might seem.

Certainly, during the period of re-feeding, the men ate happily (obviously not suffering from an ED) but my point is that whilst starving, the men underwent such changes to the chemical balances in the brain, that food became an absolute obsession and habits previously unheard of, became commonplace.

When an Anorexic tries to recover, they not only battle the mental blocks that the illness creates, they also have strange, unseen physiological blocks.

(Another terrible hidden suspicion of The Anorexic, that their appetites will become insatiable once they begin to refeed, is also borne out in Keys’ evidence, producing yet another barrier).

I could go on and on about this great study in starvation, but it’s all for another post. What I want to convey is that, despite all appearances, recovery is never as straightforward as ‘just eating’. Refeeding, within itself, is fraught with unconscious physiological blocks and hurdles.

For me, personally, despite this knowledge, and armed as I am, I still stand on the wire, looking at that vast expanse that is ‘no man’s land’, weighing up the risk, trying to see where the mines are set, where the searchlight falls.

It’s been ten years raging, this war.

gripping barbed wireI still want to fight…

…but the real enemy

lies in the woodland

on the horizon

I still need to make it to.

THAT’s the pathology of an eating disorder.

THAT’S the physiology of starvation.

I’m not going to write about all the reasons why I was the least likely host site for Anorexia to burrow into. You’ll just have to trust me when I tell you that nobody could believe it, me included.

However, just ONE of the reasons why I am an unlikely candidate, is the fact that I have always been regarded as being “a block of sense”.

It’s true, I have suffered with lifelong anxiety, something which has only really been acknowledged in more recent years, but as a general rule, certain phobias aside, I really am an incredibly pragmatic, diplomatic, rational thinker.

I don’t mean that I can do all the lateral thinking puzzles that MENSA books torment people with. I don’t have an endless chain of resolved Rubik’s Cubes.  And I don’t sit down everyday to complete the Times Cryptic Crossword, just for kicks.2000px-Rubik's_cube.svg

No.

However, I DO have a high proportion of common sense and very level head.

I don’t mean to blow my own trumpet, and again, you’ll have to trust me when I say that arrogance isn’t something that has been a strong feature of mine, but at the end of a long chat last week, a struggling friend looked at me quizzically and asked, “how did you get to be so wise?”.

At the time I shrugged it off, but later I heard it echo and I wondered… How come I have all this wisdom, and yet, can’t apply it to myself. How is it that I can see lights in other people’s tunnels, yet my own is the darkest shade of black? How can I have such insight into the pain carried by others, while I stumble in blind circles? Why can I feel what they feel, but not what I feel? How is it that people are consistently impressed with my intellect, my ‘wisdom’, when all the while,  my Anorexia is behind the scenes calling the shots.

It was my friend’s question that spurred me to write this post, because I want to illustrate something of the devious nature of an Eating Disorder. I’ve heard it suggested that sufferers of this illness choose to be thin in a ‘supermodel wannabe’ sense; that it’s vanity. I’m here to set the record straight. On the contrary, my illness makes me uglier, far less attractive.

I’m writing to explain that I CAN’T EXPLAIN how it is that my rational mind understands that I can’t be fat. It sees the figures on the scales at weekly weigh-ins at the unit. It hears the calculation of my (stupidly low) Body Mass Index, and yet, the Anorexia wraps itself round it all, and perverts it, twists it and denies it.

Lots of people ask the question, ‘do Anorexic’s see themselves as ‘fat’? It’s a massive (no pun intended) concern for those seeking understanding.

I know I’m not fat. Many seasoned Anorexics KNOW this on some level. I do however, feel that I look ‘normal’. I don’t see ‘underweight’. I don’t EXPERIENCE ‘thinness’.

So, I’m shocked beyond belief at a picture my dad takes of me.Picture altered to make background less recognisable.

I can’t recognise the scrawny person in it. She can’t be me. surely?

This is what I want to purvey. This is what I want to educate people about, because I think it’s the hardest aspect for those who watch, to understand. A person may have an IQ higher than the year they were born, but their perception of themselves can be as skewed as the government data on employment. Even with this photo, and the fact that I’ve lost weight since. I still cannot compute that I really look like that.

Such is the complete distortion of an otherwise rational mind. It’s one thing to know something in your rational mind, it’s another to experience it as ‘being real’. In this sense, I make the (somewhat controversial) assertion that Anorexia has an element which is akin to psychosis. This is where the illness becomes a mental health problem, rather than a ‘state of mind’.

 

 

It’s as simple as that really.

Whether it’s an individual or an organisation, if they have a responsibility, they need to be sensible. That’s why responsibility, the notion of it, is an adult thing. Many adults find themselves saddled with jobs, mortgages, children, pets… You hear people harking back to the halcyon years of our youth; waxing lyrical about the days of freedom; days where their minds, clear of clutter, could imagine and dream and create.

Why do they seem so alluring, these days of growing pains, curfews and restriction?

Obvious right? Because childhood is a time of careLESSness; a time without responsibility.

Children aren’t too great at responsibility. They lack the breadth of experience which provide us with the gift of foresight and hindsight. They forget things because they drift more easily through the mists of their creative minds. They have different priorities and values.

So it’s an adult thing then. And as adults, we find ourselves responsible for rather a lot of things, and (more terrifyingly) for rather a lot of people too. *Note, some find this more frightening than others

And really, responsibility, is just about being sensible. Taking a common sense approach. Using logic and sensitivity.

Why is it then, that in the twenty first century, in what is generally understood to be a ‘civilised society’, do we have media who behave in the most IRRESPONSIBLE fashion?

Can anyone explain it to me?

If it was ONE person, then maybe I’d get it. I mean, everyone is irresponsible sometimes. But a whole group? A whole team of, God knows how many, people? Photographers, an editor in chief, the creative director, features editors…

A whole menagerie of magazine employees, and NOBODY figured that featuring the Yves Saint Laurent advert which clearly depicts a horribly underweight model, would be grossly irresponsible?ysl model

Honestly.

I’ll write more on this, but my initial reaction is this.

They’re just

so

very

silly.

If your default state of mind involves a relentless drive towards perfection.Rebel

If the eye flinching, wincing, mincing voice of piercing criticism carries through veins and synapses

If your head is bent and darkened by the brightness of those around you

If you cannot bear the bird that longs to nestle in your palm, for fear that it will turn and peck your sockets hollow

If your thoughts are spurs and feelings, whips that lash your saddened soul

and your mind set is a thirst that’s only quenched by a glass half full

then hear the call and heed it

Rebel against your own state of mind.

“Rebel against your own state of mind…”

The background noise penetrates my concentrated, musical rhythm of ‘knit one, knit one below, knit one, knit one below’…

A glance at the TV brings an advert into sharp focus; a sleek grey car wheeling across a dramatic rural landscape. It seems obvious that it was a car ad but really, it might just asRebel well be the Scottish tourist board (or another bloody Party Political broadcast – Please no more!)

It’s not important. What matters is the fact that I’m having to count my stitches again because one sentence has lodged itself in my mind. It’s vying for my attention, playing on a continuous loop which forces me to stop counting and think properly about how this one sentence resonates deep within me, and how relevant it is in the context of my recovery and, perhaps, recovery in general.

My state of mind is founded on a determination to recover.

But it’s complicated.

‘Complicated’ because I swing between an absolute conviction that I WILL beat Anorexia and that I CAN and AM; and the absolute desperation that highlights the impossibility of it all, the futility of trying and the agony of succeeding at weight gain. (Yes, the presence of absolutes is noted).

The twisted paradoxes that lie like fatal, open jaws, are manifold and make the journey towards recovery all the more perilous for those who crawl along the path.

I want to eat, but I don’t want to gain weight.

I want to gain weight, but I can’t let myself eat.

I pick up my food, but I can’t put it in my mouth.

I drool over supper that I scrape off my plate

I eat all my meals, but I can’t keep them in

I cut off my nose…

Irony after irony. Stacked up, an impossible pylon to climb up or climb down.

I’m losing my thread (which won’t come as as surprise). The point is, in order to recover, I have to rebel against my state of mind.

Anorexia has become a default setting, a default state of mind. It is no longer possible for me to remember when I didn’t much care what I ate, when life wasn’t just about food, or no food. Even when I am absolutely convinced that I am going to crack it, determined that I can do it, the resolve can evaporate before I can pull the top off the yoghurt.

Rebel against your state of mind.

This six word commands a practise that might help in the battle towards restoring some of the balance that the eating disorder has stolen. Rebelling against your state of mind means a battle, a defiance, a disobedience.

Making peace with my state of mind will be about as successful as Chamberlain’s approach to Hitler. Appeasement is not an option.

I realise this post is a slightly bizarre conglomerate of thoughts and metaphor. Out of the habit of writing, I am at once struck by how much Iies unexpressed, and how tangled and tangential, my thoughts.

A peacemaker would beg forgiveness but in a spirit of rebellion, I post this anyway and pretend I don’t care.

It’s that time of the year again.

The first brush strokes of autumn begin to tinge the greens and yellows of late summer. The air grows a little cooler; the sun, a little whiter and dawn’s breaking, slower and quieter.

And then there are the spiders.

Scaffold-legged, they run amok in our houses, apparently mo’t measured the fear of a fully signed up member of Arachnophobes Anon against the brazen tap dance of these too-quick-for-comfort creatures.

I digress hopelessly.

The fact that I fall apart when faced with a spider contrasts markedly with the way I react in a crisis. Put me in a room with the spider and I break into a cold sweat. I experience weakness in my major limbs. Paradoxically, when faced  with a REIMAG1372_1AL shock or crisis, I become almost ultra cool… Weeping and woe-ing makes me impatient and I will veer away from any kind of hysteria.

Today though, I was shocked to the core and though nobody would have known to look at me, inside I was choking on my own words. Words that wouldn’t form to express, to heal, to challenge, to cut through layers of psychotic deception.

Sometimes, words won’t do. They don’t hold enough power.

Then, there is nothing to do but fall to your knees and cry out. Cry for help from one who is bigger than the chaos outside and more powerful than the feelings within.

Today, I cry. I cry for a friend whose mind has descended into the hell of psychosis. The first episode.

I couldn’t help.

The irony is, as we sat on her hospital bed, she told me that her Anorexia has never been so good.

Straight swap? I wish I knew more about the mind.